One cannot help but question Moshe Rabbeinu’s seemingly disrespectful response to Hashem’s command that he go and free the Jewish People from Egypt. After years of suffering and turmoil, the time had finally come for the Jewish people to leave a bitter exile, receive the Torah, and return to their homeland. Yet, Moshe protests and questions Hashem’s selection. “Who am I to go to Par’oh?” asks Moshe (Shemot 3:11). “They [the Jewish People] will not believe me,” Moshe insists (4:1). Moshe also questions his ability to properly communicate with Par’oh in light of the fact that he is “not a man of words” (4:10). The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 3:14) even teaches that Hashem tried to convince Moshe to go down to Egypt for a full seven days until Moshe finally accepted the job. Therefore, we must ask why the great Moshe Rabbeinu was so reluctant to accept Hashem’s request. Should his response not have been “Hineini,” “here I am,” the Avot’s response to Hashem’s difficult commandments?
The answer to this question can be found hiding in a somewhat ambiguous sentence or two in the Midrashic source known as the Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer. The Torah quotes Moshe as telling Hashem, “Bi Adonai Shelach Na BeYad Tishlach” (Shemot 4:13). Rashi (ad loc. s.v. BeYad Tishlach) quotes opinions from Chazal which explain that Moshe was asking Hashem to send Aharon in his stead. However, Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer (Chapter 39) explains that, “Moshe was requesting that Hashem send Eliyahu HaNavi to free the Jewish people. Hashem then responded that it was time for Moshe Rabbeinu to be sent to Par’oh, and only at a later point in history would Eliyahu be sent to the Jewish people.” Rav Dr. Jacob J. Shachter, in the name of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, elaborates on this interpretation of the Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer. He explains that Moshe Rabbeinu fully understood that he would be able to free the Jews from Egypt. Moshe even understood that freeing the Jews from Egypt would lead to the most joyous and significant moments in Jewish history, such as the receiving of the Torah and the eventual construction of the Beit HaMikdash. However, Moshe Rabbeinu was not satisfied with God’s vision, because he knew that the exodus from Egypt would not be the final redemption. Moshe knew that as a freed nation, the Jewish people would experience periods of peace and happiness alternating with periods of severe tragedy and downfall. Moshe Rabbeinu was not interested in beginning the process of a Jewish history which included the destruction of the Batei HaMikdash and long and bitter exiles. Therefore, he requested that Hashem not send him to free the Jews but rather Eliyahu HaNavi. This is because Eliyahu represents the final, permanent redemption. Moshe was telling Hashem that he was happy to free the Jews from Egypt as long as there would be no suffering to follow. In other words, Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem for a quick and happy ending to the story of Jewish history.
With Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation of the Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer in mind, we can now understand why Moshe’s refusal was not a disrespectful response. In fact, we can understand that Moshe was simply doing his job as the leader of the Jewish people. Specifically, we know that after Cheit HaEigel, Hashem threatened to destroy the Jewish people but Moshe pleaded on our behalf (Shemot 32:11-14). In that instance, Moshe boldly challenged Hashem’s decision to wipe out his nation and succeeded in his plea. Seemingly, an integral part of Moshe’s leadership position was to beg Hashem to have mercy on the Jewish people. Therefore, Moshe’s refusal to take the Jews out of Egypt was only the first of numerous occasions when Moshe would ask Hashem to “change his mind.” In Parashat Shemot, Moshe was asking Hashem to skip the entirety of Jewish history and go straight to the happy ending. However, Hashem explained to Moshe that redemption does not come in the form of quick, happy endings. Redemption does not come in the form of fairytales. Rather, a nation must encounter ups and downs in order to properly arrive at true redemption.
While it may seem sad that the Jewish People must encounter great challenges, it is important to note that the Jewish People display their greatest strength when they are challenged. In this week’s Parashah, we told that “VeCha’asheir Ye’anu Oto Kein Yirbeh VeChein Yifrotz,” meaning that the more the enemy attacked us, the stronger we became (1:12). As the Egyptians hit the Jews, the Jews simply managed to multiply more and more. Although Jews do not live lives similar to those in fairy tales, we figure out a way to thrive in exile and multiply despite opposition. The difficult road to redemption forces us to display our inner strength. While Moshe Rabbeinu requested that we experience a quick, happy ending after our redemption from Egypt, Hashem had a different image in mind, the image of bringing out the best in the chosen people in the face of hardship and tragedy.
I would like to share a short story which highlights this unique strength of the Jewish people. I had the unfortunate privilege to attend the funeral of Michael Levin, a fallen IDF soldier who grew up in Pennsylvania. I was a camper at the NCSY Kollel in the summer of 2006, and we were given the option to attend Michael’s funeral that Tishah BeAv afternoon. As we got off the bus, we joined thousands of Jews who had made it their business to attend the funeral of a boy they had never met. Rav Moshe Benovitz, the director of the NCSY Kollel, happened to be walking right alongside Rav Mayer Twersky. Rav Benovitz heard Rav Twersky murmur under his breath the following words: “This is the strength of Kelal Yisrael.” Rav Twersky, as well as every other person who attended that funeral, was inspired by the sincere unity and strength displayed by Am Yisrael that Tisha BeAv afternoon. May we continue to be strong despite the hardships we encounter. May we have the confidence that Hashem is carrying out His plan for us, which does in fact have a happy ending.